In the 1950s and 1960s, the nuns made sure to educate us by presenting us with documentaries featuring the sword-wielding crusaders, ridding the world of evil doers. When it wasn't the heroic faces of those whose skin matched that of our teachers/religious guardians, the nuns and priests, it was dark-skinned "Africans" we were made to look upon with pity. In contrast to the nuns and priests, and those victorious crusaders, Africans lived in an unfortunate place, almost as distant from "civilization" as the moon is from earth. It was a jungle-like place where the "uncivilized" had yet to come down from the trees and walk on the earth.
Closer to home, nuns discuss decisions about our development with "Mother Superior" as if as if our African-American parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors who fled the brutal conditions of Jim Crow segregation and the practice of lynching in the South were mere apparitions without historical memory.
While privy to snippets of stories about the normalization of injustice in the South, I had never heard the story about NASA hiring black women as mathematicians. These women are there for the Mercury Project. They are at Mission Control in Houston, and they are there at Huntsville. Mathematician Dorothy Vaughan is there at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. So are fellow mathematicians Kathleen Johnson and Mary Jackson. Christine Darden is at the Control Room at Langley's Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel.
"I can put names to almost 50 black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980," writes Margot Lee Shetterly[ii] in the Guardian, February 7, 2017. War had the African-American women marching off to NASA after the agency put out a call for mathematicians.
I tuned in to Star Trek on the television.
I was five when then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson created the NASA Act of 1958--still too young to recognize in President John F. Kennedy's "Moon Speech," May 25, 1961, both the race to beat Russia and the challenge of our curiosity to want to know what's beyond our home planet. The exploration of space, Kennedy said, is "one of the great adventures of all time."
Humans have been responsible for creating the worst possible conditions for all life on this planet. Out of sheer ignorance, fear, we have as our heritage wars and massacres that wipe out millions because of religious or racial differences. Class differences. Gender differences. "Imagined orders," writes Harari. No good reason whatsoever to be so ignorant. So violent.
How is the definition of civilization to suggest the expending of mental and physical energy to starve whole populations of people as Stalin did in the Ukraine and in Poland? And currently, as the US and Europeans manage by way of embargoes against its "enemies," subject children to a starvation diet, how do these "powers" recognize themselves as "superior" beings? The von Brauns today, following the money, work as scientists and as engineers for the US and Europe, devising high-tech weaponry that will end up with dictatorships who, in turn, stomp their proverbial iron boots on segments of their populations.
And, nonetheless, despite the atrocities, humans walked on the moon!
It wasn't an all-white, all-male enterprise; it wasn't all about competition and military prowess.
I've always considered the manned space-exploration program the best thing humans have ever accomplished. Too see the inside of those 1960s and 1970s spacecrafts, to see the "technology" then, the metal, wires, switches, is to wonder how was it possible to accomplish the feat once, let alone 16 more times, through Apollo 17. In all, "the two most important flights," states Micheal Collins, "were Apollo 8 and Apollo 11--8 about leaving and 11 about arriving."
And approximately 25,000 humans diggers of anhydrite rock at Dora Mittelbau existed despite the cover-up of the atrocities committed there. This history can't be dismissed, erased, hidden. This violence of ignorance is foundational to our society. Isn't it? But we know now, don't we?
Despite the suppression of knowledge, I was there at NASA with the African-American women, contributing and witnessing the awesomeness of the human potential for good.
Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek television series, notified Gene Roddenbery, the show's creator, of her plans to leave the show. Word gets around. It's no longer a rumor.
A week later, she is backstage after some event had ended and someone asks if she had a few minutes to speak with a fan. A big fan! Nichols assumes its a Trekkie. Another Trekkie. So Nichols turns to face this big Trekkie fan.
It's Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.--another Trekkie fan!
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